Saturday, March 20, 2021

Not so great a day for the Irish...

Heffernan Bar in Wexford, Ireland
Photo was taken by a friend about 20+ years ago
Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune on Saturday, March 20, 2021

Shure and begorrah (oh-oh, careful Jim), we just celebrated the day for the wearin’ o’ the green (calm down, kid). St. Patrick’s Day came and went on Wednesday, apparently without incident. No observance that I know of inspires so many clichés.


St. Patrick’s day was always big around my house as I was growing up. The name Heffernan is Irish. My father was very proud of that heritage and often said that in the Emerald Isle (oops, there I go again) back in the days of the clans, our family name was O’Heffernan. Like O’Hara or O’Connell or O’Connor, the last name of a cousin of mine who had a few more pints of Irish blood than me.


It wasn’t mentioned as much that my father was half German as well. His father, my Irish grandfather and namesake, came to Duluth from Canada about 140 years ago where he met and married a German woman, thereby diluting the Irish bloodline. But the Irish name remains with me and my kids and some of their kids, who are mostly other nationalities and very little Irish. I’m actually one half Swedish.


Growing up, I took my Irish heritage more seriously than I do these days. I didn’t know diddly about what St. Patrick was being honored for. Something about driving snakes from Ireland is all I knew. Good for him. I hate snakes. And what is more, we weren’t even Catholic.


But we always wore something green on St. Patrick’s Day, even if it was only a furry little shamrock.


I never knew my Irish grandfather. He died in his 80s when I was just two years old. He had been a bricklayer by trade, and family lore had it that he was acquainted with Duluth pioneer entrepreneur Chester Congdon who, it was said, hired him to build the brick standards that hold up the metal fence along London Road at Glensheen, the Congdon mansion. I don’t know if that’s true, but I always think of him when I drive by.


Over the years I have come to know a few of the descendants of Chester Congdon and I’ve told them about my grandfather’s alleged role in building the Glensheen fence. They always seemed unimpressed. Can’t blame them. Their ancestor built an imposing mansion and mine built a fence?


The arrival of my Irish grandfather in Duluth around 1880 coincided with the burgeoning of Duluth as a city, when tycoons like Chester Congdon and many others — whose names are still recognizable and portraits of whom are on the walls of the Kitchi Gammi Club — were building the city. Many of these businessmen acquired great wealth, but my Irish grandfather just became a bricklayer. I wish he would have joined them in their enterprises. I could have used the money.


I did inherit a song from the old grandsire, sung lustily to the tune of “The Irish Washerwoman”:


“Ooooooo, I wish I was back in my Irishman’s shanty, / Where money was scarce and whiskey was plenty, /A three-legged stool and a table to match, /And a door in the middle without any latch.” This did not fit in well with my family’s strong Swedish Lutheran associations.


Still, well into early adulthood, when I stumbled into a career in journalism, I took my one-quarter Irish heritage quite seriously. In the early days of my career as a reporter for this newspaper it was obligatory for the paper to run a local St. Patrick’s Day story on the front page each March 17.


Whoever was chosen to write it always got a byline with an O’ in front of their name no matter what ethnicity their name might imply. Names like O’Olson or O’Johnson or O’Leone or O’Pearson or O’Lhutala or O’Cohen or O’Konski (how’d he get in there?) might show up atop these St. Patrick’s Day ruminations. Tee-hee.


How I longed to be chosen to write the St. Patrick’s Day story so O’Heffernan could appear in the byline. At least it would be a genuine article. Finally I got the chance.


I have no recollection of what I wrote, save for a stirring final paragraph when I stole a line or two from that old Irish ballad “Galway Bay” by writing something like “if you ever go across the sea to Ireland, you watch the sun come up on Galway Bay.”


I was quite impressed. And I got my O’Heffernan byline for my father to see. The following day, when I showed up in the newsroom, I was met by one of the old guard working there, a man I didn’t know well at that point. He happened to be of Irish extraction himself.


“Watched the sun come up on Galway Bay, did you?” he growled. “Galway Bay is on the west coast of Ireland. The sun goes down on Galway Bay.”


Ooooooo, I wished I was back in my Irishman’s shanty…


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at 

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